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Opinion

Where to next for the Eagles and Dogs after failed 2020 campaigns?

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5th October, 2020
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The West Coast Eagles and Western Bulldogs are good footy teams. They’re on the right path and should be thereabouts again next season. But – and there’s no two ways about this – they both failed in 2020.

This is not a controversial statement, only the most one-eyed fan of either club would take umbrage with it.

After clearly trading to get better last offseason, both clubs finished in the same spot on the ladder as they did the previous season, with the Bulldogs again failing to progress past the first week and the Eagles exiting a week earlier than they did in 2019.

The Bulldogs spent picks 32 and 51 on a new key forward who kicked 14 goals, while also shipping pick 45 and a 2020 second-rounder on a new key defender, only to end up as one of the worst one-on-one defensive teams in the comp.

West Coast, on the other hand, sold the farm to land Tim Kelly – but their midfield still didn’t hit top gear often enough and they finished below the team they prised him from. They were a bounce of the ball away from making it to the semi-finals, but finishing outside the top four in the first place just shouldn’t have happened.

Since 2011, at least one losing elimination finalist has failed to play finals the next season, with 2011 and 2017 seeing both first-week departees missing the eight the next season.

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That said, this is the first time in history both elimination finals were decided by less than a goal – can the Eagles and Bulldogs defy the odds and both return to September next year?

West Coast Eagles

Straight off the bat, if anyone’s still trying to claim West Coast were dudded by hub life in 2020, this table should put the debate to bed.

Club Games at home venue Venues played at
ADE 10 3
BL 9 6
CAR 4 7
COL 3 6
ESS 1 7
FRE 7 5
GEE 3 8
GCS 9 7
GWS 6 6
HAW 2 8
MEL 2 9
NM 4 5
PA 7 3
RCH 4 8
STK 4 6
SYD 4 7
WCE 7 3
WB 4 6

Their seven home games were more than 12 other clubs, while only having to play at three venues all season puts them in equal first. Now that that’s settled…

It was a familiar story for Eagles fans both last year and in 2020. They played like a top-four team for most of the year – but an unfathomable slip-up against a lesser side cost them the double-chance.

Last year, it was the 38-point loss to the Hawks in the final round, this year it was the 44-point hammering against the Suns in Round 2. In that loss against Gold Coast, Adam Simpson claimed their GPS data indicated they’d run harder in a midweek intra-club match.

I have no inside scoop on the attitude of West Coast’s list, so I’m no position to make bold assertions about their psychology, hunger or work ethic – but two straight seasons of phoning it in against an also-ran when everything’s on the line is a worry.

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But it’s not just their performances in banana-peel games that’s concerning.

Since their 2018 premiership, the Eagles are 2-8 against top-four sides, with three of those losses coming by more than 40 points and the average losing margin still a healthy 29 points.

Others have been able to explain the aerially-dominant, kick and mark-heavy style of play better than I have, so I won’t bother, but one thing that jumps out is just how badly they get out-marked in those losses.

Luke Shuey of West Coast Eagles looks dejected

(Photo by Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

West Coast averaged 86 marks in their 2020 wins, compared to just 65 in losses. They had 71 in their loss to Port Adelaide, while being held to just 47 against Brisbane and 46 against Richmond. Even in their nine-point win over Geelong, they had just 57.

Their disposal, tackle, clearance, contested possession and inside 50 numbers are almost identical in wins and losses – the big difference is in the marks.

Is that a sign they struggle to get the game on their terms against the top sides? Are the top sides simply too good to be troubled by Adam Simpson’s gameplan, or have they figured it out?

I don’t claim to have the answers, but it’s a stat that jumps off the page – you’d think there has to be something in it. If the latter of the above scenarios is true, then Simpson’s gameplan being allegedly age-proof will count for little.

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As for the age of the list, there are concerns – but they’re somewhat overblown Josh Kennedy, Shannon Hurn, Nic Naitanui and Luke Shuey are all over 30, Jack Redden and Brad Sheppard will join that club next season, while Jeremy McGovern, Andrew Gaff and Jamie Cripps aren’t far off.

Will Schofield has already retired, while Lewis Jetta must be contemplating hanging up the boots too after dramatically falling out of favour in 2020.

But there’s plenty to like coming through too, with Tom Barrass, Liam Ryan, Jackson Nelson, Liam Duggan and Tom Cole all established talent under the age of 25, with the likes of Oscar Allen, Brayden Ainsworth and Jack Petruccelle all bubbling under the surface.

It’d also be remiss not to mention Elliot Yeo’s extended absence – he gives the midfield much more grunt and would’ve made a difference on the weekend.

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All in all, the Eagles looked like a B++ team for most of 2020 – the very best team in the competition who weren’t capable of winning it. Kelly had a better year than he’s been given credit for, but Shuey was massively down and, as above, they clearly weren’t at the same level as the sides still in it.

I’d like to see them shop for a midfielder with more pace (although there appear to be slim pickings on that front this year) to make their engine room more flexible, while I still don’t think they’ve adequately replaced Willie Rioli’s output in the forward line.

If they can’t address those holes in the offseason, making the top four next season could be a huge uphill battle, but I’d be floored if they fell out of the eight altogether.

Western Bulldogs

The Bulldogs didn’t throw the kitchen sink at a premiership like the Eagles did, but neither Josh Bruce nor Alex Keath performed as advertised – a huge factor in why the Dogs frustratingly made no progress up the ladder in 2020.

They did well to recover from a shocking start to make the eight anyway, and their form over the last six weeks of the home-and-away season was good enough for them to outright deserve their spot.

But you only have to look at their record against the rest of the top eight to see, quite clearly, they were never getting near the flag.

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WB vs bottom ten 9-1, 152.5%
WB vs top eight 1-7, 69.9%

Their lone-win against a top-eight side this year was a two-point nailbiter against the other side that got knocked out this week. Otherwise, they got brushed aside by the teams above them with ease.

When I dissected the Bulldogs woeful start to the season after Round 2, one stat that jumped out to me was their speed in defence compared to attack.

That trend continued throughout the season. In four of their seven losses to top eight sides, the Dogs were between 0.9 and 1.3 kilometres per hour slower without the ball than they were with it. They average five more clearances per game than their opponents and 15 more contested possessions in wins, but average four fewer clearances and 10 fewer contested possessions in losses.

Putting those numbers together is absolutely damning. The midfield talent the Bulldogs possess is envious – but work beats talent unless talent works and, clearly, the talent isn’t always working as hard as it should.

Unfortunately, the problems elsewhere on the ground aren’t nearly as simple as consistency.

Luke Beveridge needs to find a cure for his allergy to good key position players in the offseason if the Dogs want to get any better and it’s hard to know where to start.

Tim English has been rightly lauded for his work around the ground, but he got hopelessly dominated in the ruck all season. There’s a lot of good discussion about how valuable hitouts really are in today’s game, but the low correlation between hitouts to advantage and clearances in the context of defending English misses the point – imagine how good the Dogs midfield could be without such a handicap at the stoppages?

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Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs looks dejected after a loss

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The forward line was a complete mess too, with Aaron Naughton and Josh Schache both struggling with injuries and form, while Bruce had an absolutely shocking season. His 168 goals in 99 games for St Kilda made him one of the all-time trade bargains for pick 48, but a meagre return of 14 goals in 17 games this year was disastrous.

Bulldogs fans would be happy with Mitch Wallis racking up 25 majors, but having him top the club goalkicking is a bit like New Zealand topping Australia in an Olympics medal tally – an unexpected achievement we can simultaneously applaud and cringe at.

Down back, Keath struggled to have any impact on a dysfunctional key defensive structure. The Bulldogs lost 34.2 per cent of their defensive one-on-ones in 2020 – easily the worst in the league.

Keath, of course, isn’t solely to blame, with Zaine Cordy struggling too and Ryan Gardner earning the ire of Dogs fans on a weekly basis for horrid ball use – although all three were tough to watch by foot.

A better year on the injury front for Naughton and Schache could make a difference up forward, but having a crack at a key defender would be wise this offseason.

Barring major changes, I expect the Dogs to be in the same scrap for a top-eight spot they were this season. If I was a betting man, I’d back them to get back, but if I had to chose an elimination final loser to miss the eight next season, it’d be these guys.